Note: This article contains a photograph featuring people wearing blackface makeup. One of the three people photographed is a deputy chief of Hennepin Healthcare Emergency Medical Services. The other two are current or former EMS staffers.
Two weeks after issuing a public letter renewing its pledge to be "intentional in addressing systemic racism," leadership at Hennepin Healthcare, the Twin Cities' largest safety-net hospital system, is facing internal turmoil over photographs featuring two employees dressed in blackface makeup.
The pictures feature two white paramedics, including a deputy chief of EMS. One shows three people dressed as 1960s vocal trio the Supremes. Another shows two people dressed as R&B duo Milli Vanilli, in dreadlock-style wigs and dark makeup.
The photos, obtained by the Star Tribune, are not dated, but they resurfaced two weeks ago, when a member of the public forwarded them to Hennepin Healthcare leadership.
In interviews with the Star Tribune, employees described this moment as a test for whether leadership will follow through on its commitment to address what some described as the latest in a series of racially insensitive events for a hospital system whose mission is to serve Minnesota's most diverse and vulnerable communities. Others lamented that the absence of action after two weeks is evidence of the immovability of the status quo.
"The feeling is that there's a lot of talk with no action on wanting to change," said a Hennepin Healthcare employee, one of many who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing professional retribution. "When the test comes to prove they're going to change, or they're moving in that direction, they do nothing. It falls flat. It's a disappointment. … It's just overwhelmingly awful. Yet also not a shock."
A co-worker echoed the sentiment: "I feel like at Hennepin it's been going on so long, it's damn near part of the training."
Last weekend, a group of 11 doctors from departments across the hospital issued a letter asking leadership to take make good on its promises to lay an "antiracist framework" and move into a new era.
"We are concerned that photos may have recently surfaced of white leaders at [Hennepin Healthcare System] attending an event in blackface," reads the letter. "While all employees are rightfully entitled to due process, we sign this letter affirming that racist caricatures should not be tolerated by our institution."
Hennepin Healthcare's leadership declined a request for an interview. "Due to an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment on the specifics, but let us be clear that we take this very seriously and our next steps will be determined by any investigation findings," said spokesman Thomas Hayes in an e-mail.
The union that represents Hennepin Healthcare EMS also condemned the photos this week, calling on hospital and EMS leaders to create new anti-racism and trauma training, diversify a predominantly white and male paramedic system and issue an "acknowledgement and full-throated apology for this incident."
"These types of racist displays are wholly unacceptable," reads the letter, signed by the board of the Hennepin County Association of Paramedics and EMTs. "It does not matter if this happened 10 days ago or 10 years ago, it is wrong."
Latest incident in a pattern
The photos, featuring EMS Deputy Chief Amber Brown with a current and former paramedic, arrived in the inboxes of Hennepin Healthcare leadership officials Feb. 15.
The e-mailer said one of the images was taken at a Hennepin EMS event. "These are the kind of people on your payroll," said the e-mail. "Now imagine the conversations happening around the time clock."
The e-mailer said EMS management was aware of the photos, noting another EMS deputy chief, Mike LeVake, had "liked" one of the images on Facebook. And Brown is in a leadership role "for God's sake," the message said.
The photos would "not help Hennepin's already stained image," the e-mailer concluded.
Brown, LeVake and the paramedic did not respond to requests for comment.
The hospital system was already managing a crisis. The morning they received the e-mail, Hennepin's leadership members appeared in a Star Tribune article apologizing for another employee and promising to address internal racism.
A couple of days earlier, the Star Tribune reported on a Hennepin doctor training Minneapolis police on a severe form of agitation known as "excited delirium." The controversy stemmed from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey saying he'd directed his staff to cease training about the syndrome in 2021, after the nation's largest professional association for physicians condemned the diagnosis as an overly broad "manifestation of systemic racism," often misused to justify police violence against Black men.
The Star Tribune found Hennepin Healthcare Dr. Paul Nystrom, who is also a part-time police officer, was still teaching excited delirium in Minneapolis police training, in defiance of the new directive. Frey said he was "furious" to learn of the actions of a "rogue doctor."
"Systemic racism is deeply imbedded in law enforcement and health care systems, including ours," read the letter signed by Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Daniel Hoody and Chief Health Equity Officer Dr. Nneka Sederstrom, on Feb. 14. "We failed to address it here when we had the opportunity and, in doing so, have caused further pain and mistrust."
Located on the east side of downtown, Hennepin Healthcare and its flagship hospital, HCMC, serves mostly of people of color. In 2018, 34% of patients were Black, 19% were Hispanic/Latino and 38% were white, according to the hospital's Community Health Needs Assessment 2020-2022 study.
Hospital employees say this is just the latest in a series of incidents in recent years that have exacerbated racial tension among the staff.
Last summer, an employee brought in a box of items destined for Goodwill that included statues of bears in Civil War-era military uniforms, one holding a Confederate flag. Someone displayed the Confederate bear prominently in a hospital break room window, despite complaints from Black staff.
"They thought it was cute and funny," an employee who witnessed the incident said of the colleague who displayed the statues.
Staff members posted a photo of the Confederate bear on social media as evidence of a culture problem, and at least one Black employee left the hospital over the incident.
"Hennepin County's a hot mess right now," said the hospital employee.
In another incident, a white employee ripped down a "Justice for Daunte Wright" poster hanging in an office space shared by Black employees, according to several sources familiar with the incident.
Farji Shaheer, co-founder of Next Step, a Hennepin Healthcare program that works with young victims of violence, said a community member gave him the poster shortly after Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter fatally shot the 19-year-old Black man during a traffic stop in 2021.
"One day I came to work and the poster was gone," said Shaheer.
"I never found out why," he said. "I wasn't interested. To me it was a clear-cut case. You're not allowed to go into other people's spaces and take something."
Shaheer said the employee who destroyed the poster still works at the hospital, and he's not aware of any punishment.
If a Black employee had destroyed a white worker's property, "they would have been fired instantly," said a co-worker familiar with the incident.
"To this day, there's been no public apology," the co-worker said.
A deep-seated culture
The hospital has taken some steps to address these issues.
A year ago, it hired Sederstrom, the first-ever chief equity officer, to help close the gap on racial disparities in health care.
The letter from Hennepin issued two weeks ago detailed plans for revised training that demonstrates a commitment to anti-racism, to amend or terminate the medical directorship contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, advanced internal training on systemic racism and to communicate these plans to the community.
Some say the reckoning over police and race in Minneapolis has only exacerbated these issues in the hospital system.
In an interview this week, a Black employee said she's endured listening to her white co-workers make jokes at the expense of George Floyd over the past two years.
After Floyd's killing, employees of Hennepin Healthcare looked at his private medical records on multiple dates without authorization. Lawyers for the family called the breach a further victimization.
"Even after death, he was abused and mistreated by the system. Shameful," read a September 2020 statement from the attorneys.
In the months after doctors pronounced Floyd dead at HCMC, an employee complained about a co-worker wearing a Black Lives Matter logo, said an employee of color who witnessed the incident.
Employees would like to see hospital leadership be more proactively anti-racist, the person said. "I would like to see that when there are situations or circumstances that call into question racism or a lack of racial equity that the organization prioritizes it loudly, vocally and acts upon it in a way that advances racial equity in our institution."